299. Organizing a Game

I once saw a crowd of children around two tables that had been pushed together. Two of the children had ping pong paddles, and they were playing ping pong. The rest of the children were watching. I think most of them were hoping to get a chance to play. But it was all happening during a twenty-minute indoor recess, so there was no way everyone was going to get a chance.
The paddles and the ping pong balls belonged to one boy, and he was one of the two players. The procedure he or they had set up was that two children would play until one of them won, and then someone else would play the winner. This worked until the owner of the game lost. Then he took the paddles and balls, and put them away. The other children were angry, and called him a sore loser.
As all this was going on, I was devising a fairer way to organize the game. It wasn’t fair, I thought, to keep having challengers play the winner. That would mean the winner or winners would have more chances than everyone else. I had
a system whereby as many people as possible would get to play. I really wanted to interrupt the game and explain my system.
But something stopped me. I remembered having tried to impose my sense of fair play on groups of children. Sometimes, it had worked, sometimes not. I also remembered the games we used to get together when I was a child. We usually treated the best players as authority figures. Once in a while, the baseball or bat was owned by someone who wasn’t such a good player, and we had to give the owner some authority, or risk losing the equipment we needed in order to play. I did not intervene in the ping pong game. I really wanted to, but I didn’t. I checked with the children’s teacher, and she had already thought about the issue, and decided to let the children work it out themselves. And so the game was played in a way I considered unfair, and ended when the equipment- owner ended it.
I don’t like what happened, but I like the fact that the children were in control of what happened. We adults control children’s lives in many ways. We try to get children to do things that are fair, healthy, educational, safe, and so on. We do that partly because we care about children, and partly because we like to be the ones with the power – we like things to be done our way. But somehow, despite the angry, disappointed looks I saw on children’s faces, I think their teacher and I were right not to get involved. This time, the children had to work it out on their own. Maybe they’d agree to let the owner have his way, and play every game. Maybe they’d work out something fair. Another child might bring equipment next time. Whatever solution they’d come up with would be theirs, not ours, and something about that felt right.

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